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Blupete's Weekly Commentary


February 18th, 2001.

"The Reformer"

William Hazlitt on the Reformer:

"Tory sticks to Tory: Whig sticks to Whig: the Reformer sticks neither to himself nor to any body else. It is no wonder he comes to the ground with all his schemes and castlebuilding. A house divided against itself cannot stand. It is a pity, but it cannot be helped. A Reformer is necessarily and naturally a Marplot, for the foregoing and the following reasons. First, he does not very well know that he would be at. Secondly, if he did, he does not care very much about it. Thirdly, he is governed habitually by a spirit of contradiction, and it is always wise beyond what is practicable. He is a bad tool to work with; a part of a machine that never fits it place; he cannot be trained to discipline, for he follows his own idle humours, or drilled into an obedience to orders, for the first principle of his mind is the supremacy of conscience, and the independent right of private judgment. A man to be a Reformer must be more influenced by imagination and reason than by received opinions or sensible impressions. With him ideas bear sway over things; the possible is of more value than the real; that which is not, is better than that which is. He is by the supposition of a speculative (and somewhat fantastical) character; but there is no end of possible speculations, of imaginary questions, and nice distinctions; or if there were, he would not willingly come to it; he would still prefer living in the world of his own ideas, be for raising some new objection, and starting some new chimera, and never be satisfied with any plan that he found he could realise. Bring him to a fixed point, and his occupation would be gone. A Reformer never is -- but always to be blest, in the accomplishment of his airy hopes and shifting schemes of progressive perfectibility. Let him have the plaything of his fancy, and he will spoil it, like the child that makes a hole in its drum; set some brilliant illusion before his streaming eyes, and he will lay violent hands upon it, like little wanton boys that play with air-bubbles. Give him one thing, and he asks for another; like the dog in the fable, he loses the substance for the shadow: offer him a great good, and he will not stretch out his hand to take it, unless it were the greatest possible good. And then who is to determine what is the greatest possible good? Among a thousand pragmatical speculators, there will be a thousand opinions on this subject; and the more they differ, the less will they be inclined to give way or compromise the matter. With each of these, his self-opinion is the first thing to be attended to; his understanding must be satisfied in the first place, or he will not budge an inch; he cannot for the world give up a principle to a party. ... a patriot of this stamp is really indifferent about every thing but what he cannot have; instead of making his opinion between two things, a good or an evil, within his reach, our exquisite Sir sets up a third thing as the object of his choice, with some impossible condition annexed to it, -- to dream, to talk, to write, to be meddlesome and troublesome about, to serve him for a topic of captious discontent or vague declamation, and which if he saw any hopes for cordial agreement or practical co-operation to carry it into effect, he would instantly contrive to mar, and split it into a thousand factions, doubts, and scruples, to make it an impossibility for any thing ever to be done for the good of mankind, which is merely the plaything of his theoretical imbecility and active impertinence! ... [Then there is the type of reformer who] in a spirit of envy and ignorance, quarrels with all those who are labouring at the same oar, lays about him like mad, runs a-muck at every one who has done, or is likely to do, anything to promote the common object, and with his desperate club dashes out his neighbour's brains, and thinks he has done a good piece of service to the cause, because he has glutted his own ill-humour and self-will, which he mistakes for the love of liberty and a zeal for truth! Others, not able to do mischief enough singly, club their senseless contradictions and unmanageable humours together, turn their attention to cabal and chicane, get into committees, make speeches, move or second resolutions, dictate to their followers, set up for the heads of a party, in opposition to another party; abuse, vilify, expose, betray, counteract and undermine each other in every way, and throw the game into the hands of the common enemy, who laughs in his sleeve, and watches them and their little perverse pettifogging passion at work for him, from the high tower of his pride and strength! If an honest and able man arises among them, they grow jealous of him, and would rather, in the petty ostracism of their minds, that their cause should fail, than that another should have the credit of bringing it to a triumphant conclusion. They criticise his conduct, carp at his talent, denounce his friends, suspect his motives, and do not rest, till by completely disgusting him with the name of Reform and Reformers, they have made him what they wish, a traitor and deserter from a cause that no man can serve! This is just what they like -- they satisfy their malice, they have to find out a new leader, and the cause is to begin again! So it was, and so it will be, ... a rope of sand against a rock of marble -- with no center of gravity, but a collection of atoms whirled about in empty spaces by their own levity, or jostling together by numberless points of repulsion, and tossed with all their officious projects and airy predictions by the first breath of caprice or shock of power, in that Limbo of Vanity, where embryo statesman and drivelling legislators dance the hays of Reform, 'perpetual circle, multiform and mix, and hinder all things,' proud of the exclusive purity of their own motives, and the unattainable perfection of their own plans!"

(Preface to Political Essays)

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Peter Landry

February, 2001 (2011)